Falcon Acoustics BBC LS3/5a

The Cult of the “Little Legend”

Equipment report
Falcon Acoustics BBC LS3/5a
Falcon Acoustics BBC LS3/5a

Falcon Acoustics
If a wholly new LS3/5a built to original specifications with vintage parts and materials was to be manufactured and marketed, the task could not have fallen to a company with more legitimate claims to experience, authenticity, and even authority than Falcon Acoustics. Founded in 1972 by Malcolm Jones, a former engineer at KEF and substantially responsible for designing and developing several classic KEF drivers, including the B110 and T27, Falcon, though a small company, has long been one of the leading British suppliers to the retail DIY market of components and other items necessary for building speaker systems. Before long, the company was distributing drivers by other manufacturers and offering do-it-yourselfer kits of complete loudspeakers (“everything but the wood”). In 1982, Falcon applied for a license to build LS3/5a’s, but the BBC gave it instead to Goodmans, for whom Falcon, by then with a firmly established reputation for high-precision work, wound up supplying crossovers. For much of its history, including up to the present day, Falcon has maintained a large catalog of parts and components for LS3/5a’s.

According to Jerry Bloomfield, who purchased Falcon when Jones retired in 2009, the company was “repeatedly approached to start making a B110 and T27 with original materials and correct specifications again so that people could keep their KEF-based systems working.” Once committed, Bloomfield and Jones went to great lengths to get the original materials, including commissioning a ton of the original Bextrene polymer required for the B110. (The history of the B110 as regards performance, materials, specifications, manufacturing techniques, and the like is so complicated as to resist summary. Bloomfield and Jones both grant that virtually no vintage LS3/5a’s have met spec for a long time now and that one of the several culprits was the B110. But Falcon for its part seems to have done everything imaginable to ensure that current B110s are at once truly vintage, yet of a unit-to-unit consistency, sustainable over time, traits that eluded those of two and more decades ago.) After some two years of producing and selling the newly minted woofers and tweeters, he said, “We thought it might be fun to make a ‘classic’ Falcon LS3/5a using the original drivers.” Once again customers were instrumental in motivating them, not to mention very articulate in defining what they wanted. “We were being asked for the real thing,” Bloomfield said, not a simulacrum using other drivers voiced to imitate the original.

This proved a more daunting proposition than it was possible for Falcon to anticipate. It is by several orders of magnitude more difficult to resurrect an old design in all its original integrity as regards parts, materials, construction, and manufacturing processes than it is to build a new one from a clean slate. There can be no gainsaying the love, dedication, and sheer effort—say nothing of expense—that Bloomfield and Jones invested in the project once they committed to it. For example, like the original Bextrene, certain adhesives that have long since vanished from the scene Falcon had to have reformulated. They also decided that, as before, the speakers had to be manufactured and assembled wholly in the United Kingdom, which involved considerable effort finding people who still possessed the requisite skill sets. According to Bloomfield, the B110 alone “took two years of patient preparation work finding materials and getting parts made before we even built the first prototype.”

Falcon’s LS3/5a was unveiled in 2014. Here is the product description from the company’s website: “Falcon Acoustics BBC LS3/5a [is] built to the demanding BBC Specification and with full BBC License. The Falcon BBC LS3/5a is the classic 15-ohm version, featuring the British-made Falcon B110 and the Falcon T27 drive units. The hand-built British crossover is the BBC-designed FL6/23 transformer design, using transformer inductors made by British manufacturers and close tolerance pair matched components throughout. Cabinets are made from selected grade Baltic Birch Ply with beech battens. Veneered in selected wood veneers, Cherry, Walnut, Elm, Yew (Special Edition), and Rosewood. The Falcon BBC LS3/5a is hand-assembled and final pair matched in Oxford, England.”

This will doubtless be the sweetest music to every LS3/5a lover’s ears. Far from idle boasting, the description appears to be the literal truth, and therein consists a decidedly alloyed achievement. I wish I could end the review right now by reporting that Falcon’s is every inch the original, but I can’t. For one thing, even if I had the technical expertise, I lack any means of verifying the claim. Indeed, if Bloomfield is right in his assertion that Malcolm Jones, who was “there at the beginning,” “is possibly the last one alive who was personally involved” in the original conception, design, and implementation of the LS3/5a, then it follows that Jones himself may also be the last man on the planet who is in any position to know for certain. In pointing this out, my intention is to question neither the honesty nor the veracity of the claims. On the contrary, I am completely convinced that Jones and Bloomfield have done everything humanly and technologically possible to make theirs a one-hundred-percent, dyed-in-the-wool, pure-quill original LS3/5a.

Once this is granted, however, what about the sound—is the LS3/5a back in all its fabled sonic glory? Who can say for sure? For reasons I hope I’ve made adequately clear, no version of the speaker throughout its long history has sounded quite like any other version, despite the BBC’s insistence that any unit from any provenance can replace any other unit from any other provenance regardless of year of manufacture. This being the case, about all I can report with reasonable confidence is that Falcon’s is recognizably a member of the LS3/5a family: no deep bass, limited midbass, a fullish sounding upper bass long on warmth but somewhat short on definition, clarity, and drive; a rich lower midrange luscious as ever; a midrange that is down in level with respect to the lower midrange, but that rises toward 1000Hz, then peaks above that to provide a sense of projection and freedom from boxiness but also somewhat nasal (more about this in a moment); a trend toward brightness and considerable raggedness from 1kHz to 12kHz, whereafter it slopes. In all respects, then, classic LS3/5a sound, allowing for the inevitable variations.

There are two effects that struck me as more pronounced than in previous iterations. First, an increased edge and nasality in the presence region. I checked my notes for the Stirling review and came across no mention of this there, and I certainly can’t remember it from the several years I used my Rogers versions in my cutting rooms. Historically, the LS3/5a has always been variable in this part of the frequency range (see the already cited BBC graphs that Alan Shaw discovered), only here it sounds to me somewhere more in evidence. I noticed that in at least one published set of measurements, there is quite a mountain around this frequency, about 5dB at its peak, which makes it as high as the 125Hz hump. This would account for the edginess—though perhaps a better description might be shoutiness in the presence region—and for the greater nasality. It would also account for why the midrange proper sounds slightly recessed, as the ear apparently keys onto the rises at 125Hz and 1000Hz.

Second, I took the speakers over to my colleague Robert E. Greene’s, where we listened to the Dallas/Litton recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances using the Magtech amplifier. Though the level was not loud—it seems to me we could easily converse without much raising our voices—a bass drum transient made one of the woofers emit a sound that resembled a single sharp knock. Both REG and I assumed this was woofer bottoming, but Jones says that the construction of the B110 is such that bottoming is impossible. Whatever it was, it occurred just this once, very late in the review period—there was no other indication of misbehavior before or afterward. Since I was unable to duplicate this effect at my place, despite a pretty liberal hand on the volume control (though none of the amps I use at home—see below—generate as much sheer power as the Magtech), I’m tempted to call this one of those anomalies in audio for which there is no readily available explanation.

According to my memory of the Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a and my notes, the Falcons do sound a bit less transparent, which doesn’t surprise me. However good the original KEF drivers were in their day, they have obviously been superseded by a generation or two of much better drivers, especially in the areas of transparency, linearity, and resolution (which suggests to me that KEF had good reasons for retiring them). I do not remember the sound of my Rogers LS3/5a’s of decades past to be able to say with any certainty whether the Falcons are more or less transparent than they were.

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